WASHINGTON – Many employers may not be hiring anyone, let alone recent college graduates, for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean they don't have opinions on what those graduates should have learned in college.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities kicked off its annual meeting here Wednesday with the release of the findings of a national survey  of executives at 302 private sector and non-profit employers who, by and large, say their employees need a broader set of skills and higher levels of knowledge than they ever have before. But, most surveyed said, colleges and universities have room for improvement in preparing students to be workers.
To AAC&U, which has long advocated for liberal education – at once educating students in a certain field and giving them a broader foundation of knowledge and skills – the results are a sort of vindication and coincided with its board issuing a statement, “The Quality Imperative,”  that calls for the quality of student learning to be at the core of the national debate over the place for colleges and universities in the United States.
“It is time for us to match our ambitious goals for college attainment with an equally ambitious – and well-informed – understanding of what it means to be well-prepared,” said Carol Geary Schneider, the association’s president. “Quality has to become the centerpiece of this nation’s postsecondary education.”
Nearly across the board, employers said they expect more of their employees than they did in the past. Rising expectations “may not be entirely surprising,” said Abigail Davenport, a senior vice president at Peter D. Hart Research Associates, which conducted the survey for AAC&U. But “this idea that it’s an expanding skill-set that they’re valuing” reaffirms the association’s goals.
Ninety-one percent of employers said they expect employees “to take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills than in the past” and 90 percent said employees “are expected to work harder to coordinate with other departments than in the past.” Six in 10 employers said they thought in-depth and broad knowledge and skills were equally valuable for recent graduates’ long-term success at their companies.
Employers were largely pessimistic in their views of whether higher education is successful in preparing students for what was characterized as “today’s global economy.” Only about a quarter of employers surveyed saw two-year and four-year institutions as doing a good job to prepare students for the workplace.
Far more saw room for improvement. About 20 percent of those surveyed thought that both sectors needed “significant improvement,” while 49 percent saw room for “some improvement” at four-year institutions, compared with 40 percent at two-year colleges. Another 14 percent were unsure of whether two-year colleges were doing well or needed improvement, compared with 4 percent for four-year institutions.
Eduardo J. Padron, chair of the association’s board and president of Miami Dade College, noted that many parents don’t realize that the often-narrow training they received isn’t right for their children. That kind of education will “really not to prepare them well for the information economy,” he said. “All of us must focus more on what students are actually doing in college.”
Employers said colleges should place more emphasis on preparing students "to effectively communicate orally and in writing" (89 percent), to use "critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills" (81 percent) and to have "the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands on-experiences" (79 percent). Fewer than half -- 45 percent and 40 percent, respectively -- though colleges should do more to emphasize proficiency in a foreign language and knowledge of democratic institutions and values.
But even while most employers think colleges and universities could improve in preparing students for the workplace, the desirability of college degrees – especially bachelor’s degrees – appears to be on the rise. Twenty-eight percent of employers said they were putting more emphasis on hiring people with bachelor’s degrees, compared with 11 percent for associate’s degrees and 5 percent for high school degrees. A quarter of employers, meanwhile, said they were putting less emphasis on hiring people with high school diplomas, compared with just 3 percent for bachelor’s degrees.
The numbers are even more striking in the short term. Of the 38 percent of employers who said they plan to make new hires in the next year, 38 percent said they would put more emphasis on hiring people with bachelor’s degrees, 58 percent said they would maintain the same emphasis and 4 percent less emphasis.
The college work employers seemed to value most were some of the strongest tenets of liberal education. Eighty-four percent said that completion of "a significant project before graduation" like a capstone course or senior thesis would help a lot or a fair amount to prepare students for success, with 62 percent saying it would help "a lot." Expecting that students complete an internship or community-based field project was something that 66 percent of employers surveyed said would help a lot.